October 26, 2018

Word: Convert and organize whites; don't just condemn them

Sam Smith - I have been increasingly troubled by the strategy of condemning white Americans at the very time when they need to be educated, converted and organized in order to produce any positive change. The term "white privilege" is particularly worrisome because it ignores such things as the fact that there are more whites in poverty then there are blacks in total. Further, rightly or wrongly, many  whites feel mistreated because of wages, work conditions, cost of healthcare and so forth. Calling them "privileged" does nothing to help the cause.

Even if blacks and latinos joined forces, they would represent in total less than a third of the country. Any significant change requires the support of a lot of whites but too many contemporary leaders act as though dismissing or condemning them  is a productive route to change. It isn't.

I was a college student in the period of the beats and the silent generation. Many of us had a strong sense of what was wrong but didn't know what to do about it. I consider Martin Luther King Jr's Stride Towards Freedom,  which came out my sophomore year, the most important book I read in college but it wasn't assigned by any course.

Then in a few years the Sixties came along and things changed dramatically. The movements were largely led by younger Americans and even in the late 60s I was several times mistaken for a CIA agent or cop at a rally because I was a large guy over 30, the age after which you were supposed to stop trusting people.

Yet there were other things going on. Like the Poor People's Campaign of which Wikipedia writes:
[It] was a 1968 effort to gain economic justice for poor people in the United States. It was organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference  and carried out under the leadership of Ralph Abernathy in the wake of King's assassination.
The campaign demanded economic and human rights for poor Americans of diverse backgrounds. After presenting an organized set of demands to Congress and executive agencies, participants set up a 3,000-person protest camp on the Washington Mall, where they stayed for six weeks in the spring of 1968.
The Poor People's Campaign was a multiracial effort—including African Americans, white Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans—aimed at alleviating poverty regardless of race.
The temporary housing structures for the campaign were designed by a white architect, John Wiebenson, and when the demonstration was shut down by the National Park Service, DC whites and blacks provided shelter for some of the demonstrators.

In short, during what would become a stunning period of ethnic riots, whites, blacks and latinos worked together to create a major demonstration around a common issue. If we could do it then, we probably can do it now.

As one guided into change by the likes of ML King and Saul Alinsky, who organized by issues rather than identity, I find myself uneasy with some of the tone of activism today. I have a couple of theories which may have merit. One is that the Internet has tended to atomize those who would be activists today. We go to the sites that fit our ethnicity, gender, or other specialty and find the activism of coalitions rarely mentioned.

The other factor may be that in the past half century, college attendance has more than tripled in percent of adults and if other colleges are like mine was, you learned to analyze things, not how to change them. I am struck today but how much critical analysis goes on without activism. Thus the discriminatory practices of police are repeatedly diagnosed but cures are far more rarely acted upon.

My pitch these days is to condemn the bad big guys, but educate and organize the little ones. And the easiest way to do this is to form multicultural coalitions around issues. It could happen today if we just cut back on the critical analysis and find those of whatever ethnicity or gender who will join with us in a cause we share. 


Anonymous said...

Social media tends to ossify identity into essentialist categories. It also overvalues images and slogans to the detriment of building solidarity. Clicktivism creates cliques, not united movements. Identity politics has become the niche marketing of neoliberalism.

greg gerritt said...

I think anonymous is wrong on one point. Identity politicds has nothing to do with neoliberalism, which is basically capitalism uber alles. In my work I rarely discuss race, I talk about wealth instead.